Why do we bathe? For us who live nearby the Equator, we know something of good reason. The people of Exodus lived in a similar climate, but for them, cleanness meant more than just washing with water. For washing is meant to be a picture of our spiritual readiness and purity before God. It is less about how clean we are, and more about what we about to do after we bathe. So what is it that God’s people are being told to be as they prepare to be clean? At one level, we know that the Israelites were being made clean to commune with God. But what does it mean to commune with the God we can neither see nor touch?
(A) Work: Clean priests approach and minister (Exo 30:17-20a)
God directs Moses to instruct Israel about the Bronze Basin. The Bronze Basin was, well, made of bronze. It was also placed on a bronze stand, which means that it was not placed on the floor. The basin in use does not come into contact with the ground, and the only object that it comes into contact with the ground is also bronze - food for thought. Exo 30:18 gives us a sense of its location. When you walked into the tabernacle, you would see the altar, then the priests ministering at the bronze basin, then the Holy Place.
God also tells us why it is placed there (Exo 30:19-20) - for Aaron and his sons. The first stop of the priestly duty must be the basin, and the reason for this is the need for priestly cleanness. Surely this would have taught the Israelites that no one comes to God just as they are. This is at odds with much of modern evangelicalism. Billy Graham’s best selling book's title is telling - “Just as I am”. While there is great truth in the notion that we do not have to attain a higher level of morality-spirituality before coming before God, the point of Exodus remains. We cannot come before God just as we are! If we try it, there will be grave consequences.
The preceding study also tells us that this furniture is also for the creation of a sacred industry, and only Aaron and his sons qualify for this role. So not only are we closed off from God just as we are - we also can’t come before God just because we want to. This might really shock us. The point here, again, is simple - this is God’s choice and God’s prerogative. When God created the priestly system, He came up with something that we did not design. The priestly system was not our idea. The reason why we are pressing this home is because many christians forget that much in the Christian world was explicitly designed by God - marriage, salvation, cleanness, church, and so on. The God of the Bible is the First Mover, and if you want to know Him as He has revealed Himself, then we have to begin with this principle.
The bronze basin and the many stipulations around it remind us that these are God’s ideas. Does this make you worried? If it reminds you that there are huge swaths of the Bible that we have ignored because we don’t like what’s in it, then perhaps this is a worry you should address. If reading these stipulations make you uncomfortable, then that’s a good thing good! It should. The Bible does not flow as you like to accommodate your notions of spirituality. These are not mere metaphors or symbols for us to interpret as we will. God will not be refashioned according to our own choices. Ps 50 says as much, and it is the way of wisdom to pay careful attention to it. Hear the words of Ps 50:21:
“These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you."
God is not just like one of us, a slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus, trying to find His way home. This passage alongside the rest of this segment reminds us as much. Deviating from this path sets us on the trajectory that does not know the reality of God.
Ps 24:3-4 informs us why it’s important to rightly understand this cleanness. David, in his contemplation of the temple that is God’s holy dwelling place, pens,
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
How do you know if your hands are clean and your heart is pure? Not by washing at the basin. Your hands and clean and your heart is pure if you have not lifted up his soul to what is false and have not sworn deceitfully. So David says in Ps 26:6, “I wash my hand in innocence” and “I go around your altar” - the same bronze altar. David is saying that he has kept his heart clean and free before God, and now he approaches God. There is a powerful truth here - we are not clean for cleanness sake, but so that we can approach God.
The drama of Exodus tells us as much. Over the past 15 weeks, we studied the many stipulations for cleanness, and have seen how they are so that we can join together and enter into the presence of God. The entire set of commands issued were done so that that the Holy God would commune with a sinful people. But when Moses descends from the mountain at the end of this section in Exo 32, holding those words that would have a holy God dwell with His sinful people, but he finds a idolatry that makes God out to be a golden calf. In anger, Moses smashes the tablets. But their rebellion is not the end of the story. By the time we get to the end of Exodus, we see an amazing picture of communion. The cloud descends on the tabernacle, and the glory of God comes to lead the people all their days.
Some of us have spent a long time trying to be clean, but somehow never feel clean enough to approach. Maybe there are things in your and my life that remind us of our former selves. Things that tell us we are not clean enough to approach despite how hard we try to stay clean. And you never really approach God. Maybe you feel that you are never clean enough to be comfortable in God’s presence, or maybe you feel that it has been a long time since you’ve come into God’s presence. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this right now. Friends, God calls us to be clean because He desires to come into our presence. Aaron and his sons have an exclusive role, but their role was given that they might represent all the people of Israel. They were not just to be clean for themselves, but clean for others!
So the work of the clean priest is to be clean on the behalf of others.
(B) Warning: Approaching unclean is certain death (Exo 30:20b-21)
There is also a warning. They are to be clean that they may not die (Exo 30:21). This is great news, for God does not delight in the death of the wicked. Apart from the repetitions, we also see that this is to be a statute forever (Exo 30:21b). In every generation, the priest and high priest must stress ritual washing. And by the time you enter Jesus’ day, this idea was so firmly lodged in the minds of the people that you have the sort of “clean for cleanness sake” in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Prov 30:12 reiterates this warning. It is a verse that you don’t have on a bumper sticker but you really should. Indeed, there are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth. Jer 2:22-23 gives shape to this uncleanness. There are two ways that we don’t clean ourselves not just physically but in our hearts before the Lord. One, the stain of our guilt and the sin of our lives. Two, not just the things we have done but the uncleanness of our hearts - our inward idolatry. How can we say that we are not idolatrous? Jeremiah says with conviction, how can you say that you are not idolatrous when your whole life is idolatry?
There are some of us who are too terrified. We’ve cleansed ourselves but we don’t approach. Then there are some who think they are clean because they turn up for Bible studies every week and serve in church. But they come with their hearts full of filth. Exodus 20:20b-21 tells us that if your heart is filthy before God, you will surely die. The example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 tells us as much. If we try to lie to the Holy Spirit and pretend to be good though our hearts are not good, you will face the consequences. So it is with Paul’s warning in 1 Cor 11 concerning the state of our hearts when we take the Lord’s Supper. Consider your mortality before a holy God.
Have you ever had this thought? That you dare not come before God because you are terrified of Him? Approaching unclean is certain death, and Jesus would have known this because His uncle, Zechariah, was a priest. Jesus came into the world to be a Jew. This means that something of his mental framework and background about cleanness was this bronze basin.
But notice what Jesus’ teaching on cleanness sounds like. In Mk 7:1-23, Jesus stresses that “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
Jesus wasn’t saying that Exodus was wrong, He was saying that Exodus was pointing forward to something more real. The outward cleansing at the bronze basin pointed to what we desperately need - inward cleanness. Let’s be clear - there is absolutely no way that you and I can be clean before God and therefore approach Him without first realising that you are not. You cannot just tell yourself, “I have Jesus and I’m all good.” You need to first realise that you really need Jesus! This list of sins in Mk 10:21-23? That’s where we live. If you think that’s not you, listen to Jesus’ words on the sermon of the mount that tell us if we have ever held anger in our hearts or lust in our eyes, we are guilty of murder and adultery.
Jesus says that if you want to be cleansed, first you must understand that the filthiest thing is your heart. And the things that proceed from it defile you. So what can we do? Jn 13:6-17 gives us an answer. If you want to be clean, there’s only one way to be clean. That is if someone who has a pure and clean heart comes to you and washes you. And there is only one person like that. True cleanness is when Jesus washes us, and we are moved to wash each other’s feet.
What does it mean that you and I are called to be priests who wash one another’s feet? The table below summarises the teaching of Her 10:19-25. Think about it.
1) We have a confidence not in ourselves, but to enter the dwelling place of God through 3 things - the blood of Christ, a torn veil, and the active ministry of the son of God.
2) What do we do with this confidence? We draw near, come close, and resolve to be nowhere else. Pressing forward to Christ, we make ourselves available to Him at all times. And we do this with confidence. For this to happen, you need to believe that God wants you in His presence.
3) We do this with hearts fully assured in faith, and sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. Our bodies are washed with pure water - a reference to baptism which is the sign of our new birth in Christ. The way you draw near to God is by engaging in a series of activities that remind, assure, and reason with your heart to say that the gospel is true, Jesus is good, His death is efficient, His holiness is available, and "I am accepted”. If your Christian life has nothing of this and all you are satisfied with are holy crumbs that fall off the table to be your snack for the week, then you are not looking for food to sustain your faith. You need to constantly gaze for gospel sustenance that will assure your heart that your sins are forgiven and you belong to Christ. And the first sign of that is baptism.
4) The way that we do what we do is by holding fasting to the confession of our hope without wavering. But how do you hold fast to the confession of your hope? v19 - hold fast to the gospel (the good news of Jesus). In your Christian life be so good and familiar with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Know the reality of what God has said rather than how you feel about yourself. And do so without wavering.
5) Sometimes we need some help. “And let us consider how to stir” is not “consider” as in philosophical musing or capricious choice, but hard rigorous thinking and reflection. Work, plan, strategise, scheme, brainstorm, and masterplan to stir one another to love and good works. This is a picture of community life. Community life is not just spontaneous and free-flowing. Resolve yourself to a rich and diverse church life. Resolve yourself to bless a brother and tilt him away from the sin he is drawn to. Resolve yourself to stir him to love and good works. Resolve yourself to, at any cost, help your brother be clean. And do this by continually meeting. If you are made clean, and if you are made clean then your job is to bring others to God. You are to minister to others that they might be made clean.
Friends, this must be a practical passage. You are now a priest. Make the effort to be clean that others might be made clean, for Christ has made you clean.